MVA Madness Round 1: Yellow
The last batch of round 1 polls is finally up, and MVA Madness has quickly become April Madness. This is what happens when you try to keep a blog up while going back to school for the first time in 8 years. We'll make our way through the coming rounds a little quicker, but in the meantime, here are 16 artists who (while they may also play with choreo, concept and narrative) are united in that they always make sure they're front & centre in any video they release. Their videos stand out to us because something about their personal performances are "next level." Oh yes, and here's an updated print out of the brackets so far. Okay, let's get to it!
UPDATE: Polls are now closed - scroll to the bottom for results!
Rihanna is the number one seed in this bracket, partially because of the sheer volume of videos she's released. "Only Girl in the World" takes a pretty literal approach, having Rihanna alone in an empty and oversaturated environment that makes her pink hair "at one with" the land. I love the bright, stylized "Rude Boy" as well; it pairs classic Caribbean visuals with this deeply island-flavoured song. "Where Have You Been" is an incredibly high-budget video that follows Rihanna through a multitude of environments, breaking into some super fun choreography whenever she finds herself among a group of dancers. Riri does play with some decent narrative vids as well, with "Man Down" giving the back story to why she shot a man down in the first place, and though I truly have no idea what's going on in "Love on the Brain," it's definitely visually enthralling.
Volfpeck's videos didn't come to my attention until someone recommended them during the early nominations for these brackets. Ironically, the video that was shared with me doesn't feature this tight band at all, instead "Back Pocket," features two adorable dancing children. Their usual format is to feature themselves using all kinds of fun technology, for example, the drone in the video for "The Beautiful Game". More often, they keep to the simple but effective approach of filming performances of the band recording together, such as in "Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together," or the retro-looking "Wait for the Moment" and "Dean Town".
I love this match up. Mostly because so many folks have drawn parallels between Ariana Grande and Mariah, her competition this round. Both have phenomenal control and an insane vocal range, and help to write some of the catchiest songs of the 90s... I mean... of today. Their videos are pretty bomb too, and tend to feature the divas front and centre showing off their assets. I particularly love Ariana's apocalyptic video for "One Last Time," and her hilarious concept video for "Everyday," which features couples becoming increasingly ridiculous with their P.D.A. I'm pretty sure that Iggy Azalea is the only problem with "Problem," (actually, who am I kidding? I even love her in this). The rest of Ariana's videos seem to fit into 3 categories: collaborations (the best are with Nicki Minaj, whom we'll see plenty of in a minute), science fiction-esque (such as "Break Free," which is also a collab with ZEDD), and 90s throwbacks (like the perfect "Baby I").
Still, we must admit that without the legendary Mariah Carey, there would be no Ms. Grande. Not that that makes for an endorsement... there would also be no Beyoncé with Ms. Jackson, and I have NO idea what I'll do if/when it comes to that. I digress. But tell me "Dreamlover" isn't basically the original "Baby I". One thing I especially love about Mariah is that even though she may be the definition of diva, she still knows how to make fun of herself in music videos. Exhibit A: Blonde Mariah vs. brunette Mariah in "Heartbreaker". Exhibit B: Mariah as the woman of Kenneth Parcell's dreams in "Touch My Body." You could even argue that the very idea of Mariah as a secret agent in "Honey" is comical. My bias towards 90s Mariah might be showing, but I should acknowledge that "Fantasy" continues to be Mariah's most iconic video. And it also serves to prove that not only does Mariah ditch her iconic heels from time to time, she even knows how to rollerblade!
It's really only a matter of time before Lady Gaga receives the MTV Video Vanguard Award; impressively, she still managed a 5th place seed in our brackets without it. Gags consistently marries visuals with music perfectly, and this skill reaches beyond videos to nearly any public performance. I dare you to listen to "Bad Romance" without imagining the singer in at least one of her over-the-top outfits featured in the video. Same with the bangs she wears in "Poker Face". I would venture to say that her collaboration with Beyoncé on "Telephone" continues to be one of Lady Gaga's most talked about videos of all time, telling a Thelma & Louise/Kill Bill-inspired story of breaking out of prison and committing crimes in a diner. "Yoü and I" may not be one of Lady Gaga's most popular club-bangers, but the intense visuals leave you wanting answers after you see Stefani posing as a mermaid, a bionic woman (?), and her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone. With her most recent (and personal) album, Joanne, she's brought us something completely different, and "Million Reasons" might be the first time we truly see Lady Gaga play herself in a music video.
Whenever I think of the Backstreet Boys, I imagine them in one of two ways: in their classic chair dance formation from the "As Long As You Love Me" music video, or standing on the tarmac in "I Want It That Way". Both have become archetypical examples of 90s nostalgia, in part because of their long rotation at MTV and worldwide. Although they are always at the focal point of their videos, my favourites dabble in multiple genres. "The Call" feels like a high-octane action/spy movie, where each of the boys are chased down for their infidelity (the song's main subject). "Just Want You to Know" is a hilarious 80s comedy, where BSB members play fans of a metal hair band, doubling as the band themselves. And "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" features every classic Halloween character, and is essentially what happens when a group of white boys try to remake MJ's "Thriller".
David Byrne of the Talking Heads has made sure that both his music and visuals are infused with his own clever and quirky personality. Early on, Talking Heads videos helped shape the landscape of MTV, with their playful editing of David's charismatic performances, as in "Once in a Lifetime," or "Burning Down the House". In the video for "Staying Up Late," I'm pretty sure the band decided that they had always wanted to be suspended from the ceiling in harnesses, so they built a video around the idea. "And She Was" is the Talking Heads' take on the 80s obsession with stop motion videos, and although their technique is more simplistic than, say, most of Peter Gabriel's catalogue, in my opinion it stands up to videos today, looking like a modern day Radiohead or Coldplay music vid. I think that my personal fave from them is "Wild, Wild Life," which is much more of a concept video and doesn't actually feature Byrne and the band at all. Instead, the song is sung by a plethora of different characters on a karaoke stage, and yet it seems there is a little of David's personality in every one of them.
Some of you may have heard the story about how I grew up in the 90s with BET as my primary music television channel, which is why Busta Rhymes is one of the most nostalgic video makers for me in this quadrant. His visuals have always been striking - he loves to play with high contrasting, bright colours, and that classic fish-eye lens that gives everything the feeling of being larger than life (if also a little warped). He eventually paved the way for Missy Elliot to adopt and expand that same style. "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" are perfect examples of how Busta initially made his mark in the video world with these techniques, and burned these beautiful, alien images into our minds whenever his quick, lyrical flow was heard. We definitely can't talk about Busta as a MVA without talking about "Gimme Some More," which took the fish-eye effect to the next level with cartoony visuals and exaggerated characters - we see Busta Rhymes as a small child transforming into a monster and chasing his mom around the house. "Dangerous" is another classic video from '97 that plays with narrative a little more than the others, although the narrative is mostly about one man chasing another man around until they resolve everything with a dance-off. In 1998 Busta Rhymes teamed up with another video legend, Janet Jackson, to make "What's It Gonna Be?", a super sexy video set in a futuristic world of liquid metal reminiscent of TLC's "Waterfalls" video.
Nicki Minaj may pour plenty of resources into high-budget videos, but the thing that keeps us coming back for more is her addictive character. Her rhymes are peppered with her character voices, and her videos are similarly full of Nicki's acting, with all her expressive faces and side-eye. A lot of her videos share the same quintessential Barbie-pink aesthetic, complimented by bright blues and yellows. Oh yeah, and a whole lot of booty. Speaking of, we might as well start with "Anaconda," which takes the beat, melody, and sentiment of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and gives it a female perspective. For an artist who frames a large part of her brand on the size of her own ass, this was kind of a perfect move for Nicki. "Starships" is nearly a narrative video, although the bulk of the story is that Nicki arrives on the beach from her alien planet, convinces the humans to treat her like a queen, and starts a serious party. It might be her most fun video to date, although it's rivalled by the close-up, Hype-Williams-directed "Stupid Ho". The over-the-top videos we've come to expect from Nicki make me especially enjoy the times when she shows a more subtle, vulnerable side, as she does in "Pills N Potions". I had a very hard time deciding what I would pick for her fifth video, and although I've tried to avoid too many overlapping collaborations, "Fly" is worth a mention. Although it's a much simpler looking video, Nicki and Rihanna are walking through the stark remains of a post-apocalypic city, seemingly looking for signs of life. It's stunning, and if they made it into a film, I'd be there opening night.
I'll admit that though I adore Jay-Z as a rapper and royal baby daddy, if I had made these brackets one year ago, I doubt he would have been seeded so high... he may not have even found himself in the competition. It's really the brilliant visuals that he's released along with his 2017 album 4:44 that have taken him to the next level, and ironically, most of them have been less about performance and more about concept or story. But nevertheless, when I think of a Jay-Z music video, my mind still jumps to the now iconic black-and-white visuals of "99 Problems" directed by Mark Romanek. And then I think of him racing around in cars and on boats in "Show Me What You Got". If you have not yet watched all of Jay's new videos, you're simply not living your best life. But don't worry - I'm here to help, with the three I would start with: "Family Feud," a 7-minute alternate future imagined by Jay and director Ava DuVernay; "The Story of O.J.," another video collaboration with Romanek, which adds black-and-white animated visuals to an already brilliant track, driving home the concept even further; and finally, my personal favourite Jay-Z song/video, "Smile," which effortlessly takes us back to Jay's childhood to tell his mother's story of quietly falling in love with another woman. I have yet to make it to the end of this video with a dry eye.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are known for a couple of things: taking their shirts off for performances, and making great music videos. Their most-viewed (and arguably best) video is "Californication," which uses the idea of a 3D video game and has the band members snowboarding, driving, running, swimming, and riding giant bugs. For something a bit less conceptual, check out a video like "Can't Stop," which exemplifies their ability to have a lot of fun doing super random stuff. "Dani California" has them performing in the guise of several popular sub-genres of rock-n-roll throughout history, including some pretty funny impressions of The Beatles and Nirvana. While still being mostly about having a good time, "Tell Me Baby" is a slightly more thoughtful piece inspired by the lyrical content of the song itself (which explores the idea of failed dreams); the video opens with several interviews with people who uprooted their lives for a chance at "making it big," only to have some of those dreams dashed. These people become the stars of the video as they take turns performing the song in the same studio, before it ends with one big lip-syncing dance party. "Otherside" is the most different video on this list, and takes a much darker approach as the song and video process the death of their former guitarist, Hillel Slovak. The images are meant to signify the patterns of addiction that have marked all the bandmates' experiences.
Janelle Monaé almost didn't make these brackets, but then she dropped two videos on February 22nd (along with an announcement for her upcoming album, Dirty Computer) and there was no way she wasn't going to be part of this competition. "Make Me Feel" blew up the internet. Set in a club similar to Black Mirror's "San Junipero," with a funky, Prince inspired synth line, this video featured a fresh Hollywood couple to ship (Janelle herself with actress Tessa Thompson). On the same night, Monaé also released "Django Jane," where she is clearly trying to earn a spot on my Femcee Madness bracket competition one year too late (!), and reminds us that no one can wear a suit as well as she does. Even before this year, Janelle has consistently made watch-worthy music vids. Although she had some early help from a couple of ad placements, it was a combination of her video and live performances that had folks making comparisons to James Brown. The story behind "Tightrope" is an asylum that doesn't allow dancing, which, by the way, fits into the overarching story she tells with her Metropolis series of albums, and introduces us to both her theatrics and her fresh moves. A few years later she takes an assist from her accomplice Badoula Oblongata (aka Erykah Badu) for my personal favourite queer anthem of all time, "Q.U.E.E.N." For "Cold War," Monaé pulls a Sinead O'Connor and keeps the camera directly on her face while she sings with increasing emotion behind her eyes, with a strikingly beautiful result.
Queen made some of the first videos worth talking about, helping to create expectations around the genre. "Bohemian Rhapsody" is so iconic that there have been countless parodies and references to the four band members regally set against a pitch black background. Many of their videos are somewhat dated now, but they continue to inspire artists today, and likely will forever. They dabbled in animation for "It's a Kind of Magic". Although they have several more conceptual videos, there is something contagious about watching this band rock out in a recording studio for "One Vision's" video. "Radio Ga Ga" flits between black-and-white footage, representing both past and future, before finding Freddie in full colour and using a clock (?) to summon Brian, Roger, and John as if from the USS Enterprise, before performing to a perfectly in-sync crowd of clappers. The best thing about this is actually how it inspired the real crowd at their legendary Live Aid performance to do the same. This is all incredible stuff, but ultimately, I can't say there's anything better than Freddie Mercury as a mustachioed house-wife, vacuuming while singing "I Want to Break Free."
OK Go is helping to keep music videos alive (even if at the expense of good songwriting). They have become known for increasingly elaborate concepts and set ups, usually timed perfectly with their lyrics to create brilliantly creative visuals. Beginning with their viral hit "Here It Goes Again," choreographed on treadmills, their videos only got more extravagant (and expensive) from there. With a little help from a Honda sponsorship, the video for "I Won't Let You Down" has drones filming the band and hundreds of Japanese students riding UNI-CUBs, perfectly choreographed. OK Go spent an entire 24 hours filming the stop motion video for "End Love". They even literally defied gravity in "Upside Down and Inside Out". But to this day, the OK Go video that is my absolute favourite is for "This Too Shall Pass," when they set a warehouse up with one of the most impressive Rube Goldberg machines I've ever seen.
On one hand, The Beatles are not known for their music videos per se. They are, however, known for the early emphasis they put on combining their music with promotional films that helped sell not only their music, but also the boys' personality and brand more generally. This strong connection between film and music helped pave the way for epic music films later from pop legends on this list, particularly Michael Jackson, Kanyé, Bowie and Beyoncé. Although many of their earliest videos were filmed in-studio performances (such as "We Can Work It Out"), keep in mind that this was the 60s, and music videos were not things that really existed. "Hey Jude" was another in-studio performance video where they let in 300 local fans to watch and join in dramatically for the entire second half of the song. It might be simple, but there is something not only nostalgic, but also downright hopeful about the whole thing. Soon enough, their videos looked a lot like their films, with the men running around acting and looking equally charming and ridiculous. "Strawberry Fields Forever" is shot in one location, but is the birthplace of the memorable image of a piano with strings that reach into a tree. "Penny Lane" has them walking and riding horses around their hometown of Liverpool, before settling down for an outdoor tea/champagne party. Then of course there's the beautifully stylized animation from "Yellow Submarine," the title track from the 87-minute children's film (which is apparently returning to theatres this year for its 50th anniversary!)
Some of you may be more familiar with the a cappella group from which Superfruit came; it's made up of two Pentatonix members, Mitch and Scott. It became clear that these two men have incredible chemistry when they started Superfruit as a YouTube channel, and now have built up enough of a following to release an album of original material. One thing that remains a constant for all the music they put out is a creative and aesthetically pleasing music video. I can't really tell you what "Imaginary Parties" is about, but I could watch it on repeat for days. "Bad 4 Us" is similarly simple, but they are definitely performing at a party I'd like to be attending. With a little help from K-Pop star Amber Liu (and a whole lot of people in spandex yellow body suits), "Fantasy" is a whole lot of fun as well. Sometimes they play around with some storylines, too, like in "GUY.EXE," where Mitch plays a mad scientist creating his perfect man (played by Scott). But mostly it's just refreshing to have such unambiguous gay content in a really fun music video. Continuing with the theme of queer content, "Worth It (Perfect)" is my absolute favourite Superfruit video, because not only do they have children dancing, they also flip (off) the gender script with adorable costumes and choreography.
So that's finally it for round 1! Now that I'm finished up my classes, I'll try to pump out the next polls a bit quicker. I've closed the first two brackets, so once you've voted here, go check out the results of the ORANGE and BLUE polls! May the best Video Artist win!